On Justin Timberlake: Appropriation and Sacrificing Black Artists

14 years ago


Last night I watched the game, but I didn’t watch The Game.

For what it’s worth, I did not renege on my promise to boycott the NFL. That really doesn’t mean much because football isn’t important to me but big days in media are, and the Super Bowl is the biggest. I had already agreed write this piece so I had to find a way to maintain my boycott and still watch the commercials and halftime show. I had to find a way to have it both ways.

And that’s what the halftime show was really all about this year. Having it both ways. Presenting yourself as standing for one thing but in reality being on something else entirely.

Black folk who watched last night’s spectacle watched with low expectations and baited breath. Last year we endured the loose metaphor of racial politics in America when so-called Patriots snatched away all the victory and progress from America’s Blackest Team; and this year the halftime show was set to be a middle finger to all of us who know that Black women will be the scapegoats for the malfeasance of white men whenever possible.

In the event you just got the internet today and don’t know the history, here’s the TL;DR: nearly 15 years ago Justin Timberlake showed the world Janet Jackson’s titty –while singing about how he was going to do it – and acted like didn’t. She got in trouble – he didn’t.

“Nipplegate” literally changed the world. Laws and codes were written as a result, millions of dollars were paid in fines, and delays on live broadcasts went into effect overnight. It is THE REASON YouTube exists.  Janet Jackson was swiftly and eternally banned from performing at the Super Bowl and the  halftime shows became lukewarm affairs until Prince set it off again 2007.

Justin Timberlake has gone through many wardrobe changes in the 14 years since he caused the malfunction– he’s changed from baggy sweats, to suits and ties and now he’s in his flannel and bandana – “return to my roots,” phase.

You see, 2018 Justin would have you believe that he’s a lovable, rugged, good ole’ country boy. He’s pulled an Everlast (House of Pain), a Miley Cyrus, if you will. After two decades of siphoning premium fuel from the tanks of Black culture he’s going full ethanol. 2018 Timberlake is corn-fed.

And this move to reset and bleach his identity is overdue, because while he’s gotten everything he has from Black culture – he’s been biting our style since he rocked cornrows and S-curls – we haven’t been fucking with Justin for a while and he’s been pretty audibly hurt by it (cue “Cry Me A River”).

Back in 2016, right after the “we are magic,” speech that got Jesse Williams all the love – but before he traded that love for a hook-up with a white girl– Justin tweeted out how “inspired” he was by the speech. He was challenged as to whether or not he really understood the speech which derided culture jacking among other things. Timberlake responded poorly dragged up and down Black Twitter for it. At some point in the mess he tweeted. “I feel misunderstood…” and eyes rolled everywhere.

The writing was on the wall then.

Justin had lost – (I’m getting tired of typing his name, let’s play another game of ‘how many ways can I reference him without saying it)  Brittney’s Boo-thang(1) had lost his charms with the audience who had let him in. He was novel and kinda funky in 2002 when The Neptunes still got you bling with that brand new sound, but by 2013 with The 20/20 Experience, Boo-Boo (2) was kind of wearing out his welcome. He’d gotten a little too comfortable, building a big house on land that wasn’t his.

The “misunderstood” moment was just one of the many offenses he’s committed over the years. He managed to piss of Palestinians with a photo taken at the Wailing Wall which he tagged #Israel. He’s managed to piss off women and rape survivors by gushing over Woody Allen, and long before last nights- tribute (?) he’d already pissed off a number of Prince fans with subliminal digs in his verse on “Give it To Me” a knock at The Best Who Ever Did It who famously remarked “sexy never left” with regard to what was then Scrappy Doo’s (3) most famous song. Soon after the Bye Bye Guy (4) would mock Prince’s height while accepting Golden Globe on his behalf.

I can’t really blame Top Ramen (5) for the entirety of his fuckery. He’s spent some time in the very forgiving presence of Black celebrities who’ve embraced his agenda and let him keep playing with and around the culture so much that he thinks he’s actually IN it. And if we’re being really real about it when he’s performing it’s almost convincing.  He shimmy shakes and grinds with ease, he mimics MJ,’s moves and Prince’s falsetto, but T.T. Grabber‘s (6) problem is that he’ s fake woke. He’s got the moves down pat – he just could never get the Movement part in sync. He can perform Blackness well, but he can never truly own it, never really be it . And it seems he cannot stand when people tell him he can’t have or isn’t deserving of something he wants.

When Grizzly Stacey Adams (7) took the field last night in an outfit I can only call Bass Pro Couture, he knew that we didn’t want him there. He knew people felt he was undeserving of a third bow at the big game. He knew that we were waiting on him to either get right and apologize, or fuck up and flop. And in the face of that, Dances With Blacks (8) did the thing he’s done best lately. He trolled.

Jussie with a Fringe on Top(9), surrounded by other dancers outfitted in hip waders and reams of flannel, pranced around smirking as he sang “Rock Your Body” and deliberately stopped at the lyrics that led to the tarnishing of Damito Jo’s career 14 years ago. He wanted it to be cute- a sly wink to show “hey guys, it’s me…elephant in the room, right?” – but as he’s never apologized to Janet, never stood up for her and has no intentions owning his role in the event, he also clearly meant it to be a slap in the face. “Fuck you guys, it’s me, I’m here alright?”

The whole show was a mess with muddled sound, dull staging, bizarre costuming (he put on a camo sports jacket to sing “Suit and Tie”) and solid but not great dancing. Reviews were mixed at best, but largely pretty dismal. Much like the reviews of his new album.

Watching Tennessee Tuxedo (10! COMBO!) try and wear this Man of The Woods schtick is uncomfortable. He just can’t quit us.  The first single off his new album keeps trying to straddle the line, with sound that draw on folk and bluegrass but beats and lyrics that echo Hip-hop and R+B. He blends thinly veiled sexual innuendo with a healthy dose of TEOTWAWKI paranoia. The result is something like scrapple –pretty much a well-seasoned mess of pig parts congealed into a chunky pudding loaf, and fried. It’s a dish well-suited to his mountain man look. You almost want to feel embarrassed for him – then you remember the entitled prick he’s been and you don’t.

It’s pretty transparent that this post-MAGA return to his roots is Dirty Pop’s (11!) way of “picking up his ball and going home” he’s licking his wounds after being put in check by a Black population that’s grown weary of his vulture vaulting and knocked him down a few pegs . If we weren’t gonna love him then he’d show us, by god.

The Janet snipe wouldn’t be the last insult of his show. On the eve of the game, former Prince intimate Sheila E, tweeted that she spoke with Cap’n CoalMiner (12!) and he assured her he would NOT be performing with a Prince hologram as had been leaked. Sheila cited, as have many others, that Prince did not approve of the spirit of that kind of performance.  Somewhere in the coverage the quote has been morphed to suggest Prince said specifically called holograms demonic – but that isn’t true. Holograms weren’t even a viable technology in 1998 when the interview was published. The actual quote is far more telling:

With digital editing, it is now possible to create a situation where you could jam with any artist from the past. Would you ever consider doing something like that?

0{+> : Certainly not. That’s the most demonic thing imaginable. Everything is as it is, and it should be. If I was meant to jam with Duke Ellington, we would have lived in the same age. That whole virtual reality thing… it really is demonic. And I am not a demon. Also, what they did with that Beatles song [“Free As a Bird”], manipulating John Lennon’s voice to have him singing from across the grave… that’ll never happen to me. To prevent that kind of thing from happening is another reason why I want artistic control

Prince didn’t want to be singing with someone from across the grave. Period. Some argue that this quote is dated; but that reads like pretty strong conviction. It’s hard to believe an artist as principled as Prince would “get over it”

Either way, it didn’t matter to Justin (combo breaker). If Justin loves something, it has to love him back. Don’t forget, he wrote a painful, heartfelt letter on Instagram when Prince died, and Prince was a huge influence, so Prince and his fans had to love him. And if they don’t, he’ll ram it down their throats and they can choke on it – he wanted to perform a Prince tribute.

So he stuck to the letter of his promise to Sheila E, but broke the entire spirit of what Prince intended by performing a tribute “with” Prince. For good measure, JT also used Paisley Park to host a listening party for his new album – hosted by a credit card company – something Prince, a vehement non-corporatist, who created atmospheres of intimacy and celebration at Paisley Park almost certainly would have hated.

JT performs “I Would Die 4 U” with – “not a hologram”

Prince didn’t fuck with a lot of artists who loved the benefits they got from his influence. And while Justin claimed Prince offered him guidance and friendship the only thing really well documented is feud. Prince stories abound since his passing, you’d think if he and JT had a friendly relationship we’d have heard about it.

Timberlake played this game the way whites have always played it, steal Black voices and twist the words to make them say what they want them to say. They do it every year around this time with quotes from King, and Timberlake did it last night with Prince. In his hands Prince’s voice became a tool to modded to fit Justin’s message – little more than a cheap shout out to appeal to the local crowd and get the love he believes he is due, and fuck you if you won’t play along. He wants you to believe he’s the good guy even as he adds insult to Janet’s injury, but last night he really succeeded in exposing himself.

Justin Timberlake can’t own Blackness – and he probably doesn’t want to. Because ownership is a commitment. Justin just wants to try it on, leave the tags on, dance in it till he’s sweat it all up to be damed, and then unceremoniously rip it off at the end of his song. That act was shitty 14 years ago – and it hasn’t gotten better with age.

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About Julian Long 22 Articles
Julian Long* loves hard, that’s just what he does. And he writes about what he loves. You can support his writing on Patreon. He's on FB if you can find him or you could hit up his twitter – @magnet4awesome – but it’s dusty.